When Allie Buschbom began cheering in the fourth grade she never thought she was entering one of the most dangerous activities a teen can perform. Yet here she is, seven years and four concussions later, waiting to be cleared from a doctor so she can go back to the sport she loves.
Allie is part of a startling statistic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the concussion rate in cheerleading has increased by 26 percent every year from 1998 to 2008. Cheerleading also accounts for 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries to high school female athletes.
Numbers like these were the catalyst for a report released last month by the AAP. Included was a policy statement that suggests tougher regulation within cheering. The first recommendation, designate cheerleading a sport.
By designating cheerleading a sport it affords it the same benefits as other sports, such as availability of athletic trainers, improved access to medical care, limits on practice time, better facilities, certified/qualified coaches and inclusion in injury surveillance data.
Allie takes the position of “base” in her Timber Creek High School cheer squad. In September she was practicing with her teammates when a “flyer” lost balance and fell on her head, sending the two to the ground. For a time she couldn’t move her hands or feet.
She was taken by ambulance to Arnold Palmer Hospital. She suffered from headaches and memory loss for weeks.
“I just felt really nauseous and dizzy.” Allie says she remembers everything about the fall but “just really felt out of it.”
Dr. Elizabeth Davis, pediatric sports medicine specialist at Arnold Palmer Hospital, began treating Allie shortly after her fall. Davis says she agrees with the AAP report.
“The rules and regulations have to come up to the same level as all the other sports,” she says.
In her view cheering has evolved from the sideline group yells of 30 years ago into a competitive, athletic sport that challenges the limits of the body. She says the coaching and supervision needs to evolve as well.
“I feel they attempt things before they are ready.” Davis said. “You need an appropriately trained coach to say you are not doing this stunt until you girls prove to me you can master it in practice.”
Davis says cheering has relatively few injuries overall, but it’s the type of injuries she sees, the so called “catastrophic injuries” that have her concerned. These include concussions, broken bones even spine and neck injuries.
Here in Florida, competitive cheer is considered a sport in high school. These are controlled events in front of judges. Coaches must be certified and there are rules in place to make it safer. However, the majority of schools don’t compete. Cheering for those non-competing schools is considered a “club activity,” with no safety or coaching requirements.
Cheering on all levels has become more competitive in recent years, motivated by movies and videos about the sport. “Girls are more brave,” Davis says. “They want to try things, they see their friends doing them and they think, oh I can do that.”
Dr. Davis says injuries can happen in front of judges or on the sidelines of a football game. “Even the basic stunts that these girls do, they are not as comfortable as they should be with them.”
As for Allie, she says she has complete faith in her trainers at Timber Creek where she is part of the competitive cheer squad. Last year she was part of their state championship performance. She says she can’t wait to join them next season.